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Can Minari’s Youn Yuh-jung repeat Oscar magic for Korea?

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Actress Youn Yuh-jung (left), the first South Korean nominated in any Oscars acting category, has spent decades portraying nonconformist female characters. AFP

Can Minari’s Youn Yuh-jung repeat Oscar magic for Korea?

Septuagenarian Youn Yuh-jung, the first South Korean actress nominated for an Oscar, has spent decades portraying nonconformist characters, from a vicious heiress to an ageing prostitute, challenging social norms in both her career and life.

Her role in Minari, a family drama about Korean immigrants in the US, is more conventional: grandmother to a mischievous young boy trying to fit into rural Arkansas.

The film secured six Academy Award nominations last week, also including best picture, best director and best actor.

That raises the prospect of a second multi-Oscar haul for a Korean-language film in successive years, after Parasite became the first non-English Best Picture winner in 2020 – though it did not snag any acting nominations.

Youn played down excitement over her chance to make history at next month’s ceremony, saying: “I don’t enjoy competition.”

“This is not a playoff game of actors, placing them in order. I consider this nomination just as valuable as the actual award.”

Her two grown sons are Asian-Americans and she said she had taken a role in “this small movie made by second-generation Korean-Americans” for its own reward.

Based on director Lee Isaac Chung’s experiences growing up in the 1980s, Minari follows a Korean-born father who moves his family to an all-white town in rural Arkansas in pursuit of a better life.

Bong Joon-ho, who earned last year’s Best Director Oscar for dark satire Parasite, said the role was “the loveliest character Youn has ever played”.

It is the latest of several grandmotherly castings for Youn, who has already picked up a host of best supporting actress awards at US film festivals and is on the shortlist for a Screen Actors Guild Award.

Busan International Film Festival programme director Nam Dong-chul told reporters that Youn’s Oscar nomination “acknowledges an extraordinary actress who has pioneered her own path for a very long time”.

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South Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung waves while posing during the photocall of Do-Nui Mat at the 65th Cannes film festival in 2012. AFP

“I don’t think she ever intended to break into the international film scene,” he said, “but throughout decades she has developed a fine taste when choosing her projects”.

‘Scarlet letter’

In a career spanning more than 50 years, Youn has often played provocative and atypical characters who do not conform to the rules of socially conservative Korean society.

Born in 1947 in Kaesong – now in North Korea – she made her film debut in groundbreaking director Kim Ki-young’s 1971 Woman of Fire, as the live-in maid to a middle-class household who becomes impregnated by the father of the family.

The thriller was a critical and commercial hit, and remains a classic of modern South Korean cinema. But Youn’s first heyday came to an abrupt end in 1975, when she married singer Jo Young-nam and the couple moved to the US.

Youn returned to South Korea in 1984. But after divorcing Jo three years later, she battled heavy stigma to resume her acting career to support her two children.

“To be divorced was like having the scarlet letter at the time,” Youn told a local magazine in 2009.

“There was this thing that dictated women shouldn’t make TV appearances so soon after their divorce.”

She countered by accepting every role she was offered, however small.

“I worked very hard. I had this mission of somehow feeding my children. I’d say yes even when I was asked to climb 100 stairs.”

‘Fiercely competitive waters’

By the 1990s Youn was a regular in TV dramas, often portraying mothers, and later grandmothers.

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Youn in a scene of Korean-American director Lee Isaac Chung’s film Minari – a family drama about Korean immigrants in the US. AFP

In 2003, Youn made her film comeback in director Im Sang-soo’s A Good Lawyer’s Wife, as an unconventional mother-in-law in a dysfunctional family.

She played a cruel and rich heiress betrayed by her husband in Im’s 2012 thriller Taste of Money, and an ageing haenyeo – the women of Jeju island who free-dive to collect shellfish – reunited with her long-lost granddaughter in 2016 drama Canola.

Also in 2016, she was praised for her role in E J-yong’s drama The Bacchus Lady as an elderly prostitute – a veteran of the brothels set up for US soldiers in the South – who becomes involved in the deaths of former clients.

Youn is “one of the few leading actresses of her generation” to have worked consistently in Korean cinema over the last two decades, said Jason Bechervaise, a professor at Korea Soongsil Cyber University.

She had to navigate, he added, the “fiercely competitive waters” of a film and television industry “largely focused on young and often male talent for leading roles”.

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